A few weeks ago, I posted some illustrations from Harry the Dirty Dog that utterly charmed me. Today, I’d like to share another lovely retro find: Nate the Great, written by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and illustrated by Marc Simont.
I’m pretty sure I read this series as a kid, but I didn’t remember anything about it. So when I started reading the first book recently, I was shocked by how much wit and voice Sharmat had managed to pack into a second-grade vocabulary.
I’ve always toyed with the idea of writing a children’s book some day, but I’d never been interested in writing “easy readers.” As an adult, I’d long considered that stage to be the dark ages of childhood reading, when one’s inability to read more advanced books barred access to richer, more literarily interesting worlds.
That totally changed when I reread Nate the Great. I’d never before appreciated the challenge–the art, really–of writing for the very young reader. As Sharmat so elegantly demonstrates, reading level constraints are not so much a literary hindrance as a creative opportunity.
And then there are the illustrations. Has someone written an undergraduate thesis examining how children’s books can reflect society’s cultural values? (Because that’s the thesis I should have written.) Nate the Great is such an awesome example of this.
I recently became an English tutor for the son of a family friend–which means I now have a perfectly legitimate reason to spend time in the children’s room at the library.
What a delight it has been!
I had forgotten how utterly charming and clever classic children’s books can be. The illustrations, especially in older books, are wonderfully retro in ways I had never noticed as a kid.
For instance, here is Harry the Dirty Dog, the 1956 classic written by Gene Zion and illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham. It’s such a simple story, but Zion is a master of drama. Plus Graham’s drawings, which buzz and hum with life and warmth, are just too darn cute.
(By the way, if you’re wondering why I have the Spanish version: I was in one of my self-improvement moods and decided to manipulate my desire to read children’s books into an opportunity to learn more Spanish, which I last studied in the 11th grade. The goal is to some day be able to read Gabriel Garcia Márquez not in translation. For now, though, I’m going to stick with Harry, el perrito sucio.)